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East Portal Road – The Best Drive In Black Canyon

  • By Kate Moore
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National Parks are known for their scenic drives, and there’s one in Black Canyon of the Gunnison that few people tackle–East Portal Road.

Unlike North Rim or South Rim Road, East Portal Road goes all the way to the base of the canyon. It drops nearly 2,000 feet in under 5-miles. And when you get to the end, you can dip your toes in the mighty Gunnison River and look up at the Black Canyon.

driving east portal road in black canyon of the gunnison national park
East Portal Road

Driving East Portal Road

Driving down East Portal Road is one of the best things to do in Black Canyon. The road starts just beyond the South Rim entrance station off State Highway 347 in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Have your wallet ready, because you do need a National Parks Pass to drive down East Portal Road. It’s best to start your drive early, because the route gets surprisingly hot in the middle of the day.

The road starts off tame enough, but it quickly becomes narrow, twisty, and extremely steep. In fact, the last 3 miles have hills up to 16% grade!

The entire drive is scenic so take your time and go slow. There are several pull-off points along the way so you can stop and take in the view.

East Portal Road is only 5-miles long, but it takes most people about 45 minutes to drive one-direction. You should plan to spend about 2-3 hours driving down to the river and back when visiting.

driving on east portal road in black canyon of the gunnison national park
East Portal Road in Black Canyon

Road Conditions

East Portal Road is entirely paved, and allows for 2-way traffic. But, don’t let the smooth roads fool you. The twists and turns are extremely tight, and vehicles longer than 22 feet are prohibited.

If you’re towing a trailer, you can unhitch it at the South Rim Campground before starting your journey.

Make sure to use low gears during the drive so your brakes don’t burn out. Take it slow and enjoy the views!

summer on the Gunnison River in black canyon
Gunnison River at the bottom of Black Canyon

Bottom of East Portal Road

East Portal Road starts in Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and ends in the Curecanti National Recreation Area. It leads right to the water which is a popular spot for fishing.

There are plenty of parking spots at the end of the drive. You’ll also find several picnic tables, and some vault toilets as well. Seasonal water is also available. The base of East Portal Road is the perfect place to have a morning picnic and watch the fisherman try to catch Gold Medal Trout.

East Portal Campground

Another destination at the end of the road is the East Portal Campground. The campground has 15 first-come, first-served sites for tent campers. 10 of the campsites are walk-in, so if you plan on camping make sure to pack light!

The campsites are cool and highly shaded with box elder trees. They have good river access and plenty of chances to see wildlife–including bears!

If you plan on camping at the East Portal Campground it’s important to know that there is a $16 fee. You can either pay with a card at the park entrance station, or leave cash in the vault box at the campsite.

east portal road next to the gunnison river in black canyon
East Portal Road next to the Gunnison River

Winter Closures

East Portal Road is closed in winter between mid-November and late-April. The park roads get extremely icy and dangerous during the snowy season. Fortunately, there are plenty of other winter activities to enjoy such as snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

Other Ways To Get To The Bottom Of The Canyon

Aside from driving down East Portal Road, the only other way to get to the bottom of Black Canyon of the Gunnison is on foot.

There are several inner canyon trails that are available to hikers on both sides of the canyon.

All hiking trails to the bottom of the canyon require a wilderness use permit to restrict the number of travelers on each route. The inner canyon hiking trails are unmaintained and strenuous.

Frequently Asked Questions About East Portal Road

How long is East Portal Road?

East Portal Road is 5 miles long from the South Rim Entrance Station to the East Portal Campground.

Can Large Vehicles Drive Down East Portal Road?

No, vehicles longer than 22 feet are prohibited from driving down East Portal Road because of the tight turns and steep, 16% grade.

Is East Portal Road Paved?

Yes, the road is well-maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Is East Portal Road open?

East Portal Road is open between late-April and mid-November each year.

How long does it take to drive down East Portal Road?

The drive takes about 45 minutes one-direction. Visitors should plan about 2-3 hours to drive to the bottom of the canyon and back.

Kate is the lead content creator for and has spent over two years living in a camper van conversion. She has traveled through 48 US states and writes about van life, camping and RV living.

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